Thursday, January 7, 2016

Raymond Chandler's "The Blue Dahlia"

The Blue Dahlia nightclub.
"As pictures go, it is pretty lively. No classic, but no dud either."

That's how Raymond Chandler described the movie made from his only original screenplay in a 1946 letter. Chandler was typically critical of his work. In fact, The Blue Dahlia is a very good film noir. It's almost a classic, but a hastily-constructed ending and some sloppiness around the edges keep it from achieving that goal.

Alan Ladd as Johnny.
Alan Ladd stars as Johnny Morrison, a Navy officer who has returned from World War II to find his wife Helen throwing a wild party and smooching another man. Things go downhill from there, especially when Helen confesses that she lied about their son's death--the young boy died in a car accident while she was driving under the influence. Understandably, Johnny walks out on his wife and hitches a ride with a beautiful stranger named Joyce (Veronica Lake), who happens to be the wife of Helen's lover.

Buzz talking with Helen (Doris Dowling).
If you think that's a startling coincidence, then consider that Johnny's Navy pal Buzz goes to look for Johnny. He ends up in a bar sitting next to Helen, who invites him back to her apartment. The next morning, the hotel maid finds Helen's dead body. As the police search for Johnny, he starts his own investigation to uncover Helen's murderer.

As a novelist, Raymond Chandler was a master at intertwining subplots into a complex mystery. His attempts to do the same in The Blue Dahlia rely too much on coincidences. To Chandler's defense, he was given little time to write the screenplay. According to producer John Houseman, Paramount was in a rush to finish the picture because Alan Ladd was being recalled to the Army. (Others have maintained that Ladd, who served a year in the Army in 1943, was never recalled in 1946 and left for his ranch when The Blue Dahlia was completed.)

(Spoiler alert on the way!)

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
The film's biggest flaw, though, is the slapdash ending in which the house detective turns out to be the killer (I'm still foggy on his motive). It's also weird to watch Johnny and Joyce playfully flirt in the final scene. Johnny has apparently failed to inform her that her husband lies dead or critically wounded. It's hard to totally blame Chandler for either of these inconsistencies. His original ending had Buzz, who was suffering from a head injury, murder Helen and then forget it until the climax. Unfortunately, the Department of the Navy objected, fearing that it would cast U.S. veterans in a negative light. Paramount requested the revised ending and Chandler provided it.

Despite its flaws, Chandler's script boasts well-developed characters and sharp dialogue. I love the little touches like a thug knocking out Johnny, spotting a nice pen in his pocket, and taking it. Chandler received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Two years earlier, Chandler received his only other nomination for co-writing Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder.

Veronica Lake as Joyce.
The Blue Dahlia was the third of four screen pairings of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. They had learned to play off each naturally by then, making their "meet cute" a charming scene despite its unlikeliness (really, why would someone like Joyce pick up a complete stranger walking along the road?). In fact. The Blue Dahlia may feature my favorite Veronica Lake performance. The supporting cast is solid, though William Bendix goes over the top once or twice as the troubled Buzz.

While Chandler thought George Marshall was a mediocre director, Marshall keeps the plot moving along smartly. He also employs some effective long shots, such as when Joyce spots Johnny at a hotel desk and warns him about the police.

The bottom line is that The Blue Dahlia remains a memorable film noir despite its imperfections. It's just not as well-written as Chandler's Double Indemnity nor as stylish as Ladd and Lake's This Gun for Hire.


  1. The movie creates an appealing noir mood, and sometimes that's all you want - especially late at night. It became a favourite when I was a teen and my feelings have remained affectionate throughout the years. I even chose the paint colour for my living room simply because it is "blue dahlia".

  2. Love this movie, but mainly for Lake and Bendix. It's one that I've managed not to over-watch, which is probably part of why its affection still holds. Oddly, I remembered it as having the ending that Bendix is the crazed amnesiac killer, but that's probably because I haven't seen it for a while and that's the ending that makes sense.

  3. I didn't realize the time pressure involved with this script. That does answer a few questions.

    However, blemishes aside, this is still a terrific film – one that I need to see again!

  4. I really enjoyed the startling opening of "The Blue Dahlia." What an awful way to come home from war! This is a good film noir but the ending is awkward and I agree with you that the ending keeps it from achieving "great" status.

  5. Chandler's assessment of the film was pretty accurate. It's still quite enjoyable--not a classic but far from a dud either. I actually like the revised ending because it was so obvious that Bendix was the likely culprit that I thought he worked better as a red herring than as the killer. Doris Dowling, who played Ladd's wife in the picture, costarred in the Italian neorealist film "Bitter Rice" a few years later.

  6. I'm a big fan of Chandler's novels and especially his dialog, which can't be beaten in film noir. And I like this film too, evn with its imperfections. Lake and Ladd make a great pair and you root for them to get together. Thanks for reviewing this noir classic Rick.

  7. While Lake and Ladd are the stars, I also liked the contributions of the ensemble cast. Not a classic, but a great noir mood; I loved the postwar bleakness. There are worse ways to pass the time!